The farmer and I walk down the dirt path in silence. The unseasonably warm October sun heats my shoulders and I can hear my sandals crunching against the gravel. Before we reach the shed he stops and turns to me.
“You know, this is illegal.”
I did, in fact know it was illegal. My latest Facebook status update reads, “I’m off to learn how to make grappa. From what I gather, it’s like a moonshine meth lab. One wrong move and the entire thing will explode. Exciting stuff!” When I wrote it, I was joking. Sort of.
Under a moonshine law, backyard operations like this one are against the law in Italy. The government regulates the potentially dangerous process of distillation (explosions, methanol blindness, etc.) banning all home-distilation. The truth is, many Italians still brew their own highly alcoholic “acqua.” It’s a part of their culture – a throwback to old times, intertwined with the annual grape harvest, the art of wine-making and rural living.
“So, you can take the photos, but please don’t put our information on the internet.” Check.
So, my readers, it’s time for you to put on your blindfolds. We’re going to get all “James Bond secret hideout-y” up in this blog. You’re about to witness, in photos: everything you ever wanted to know about making grappa – in an undisclosed location on an unnamed farm, somewhere in the remote countryside of southern Tuscany.
The grappa factory – all the equipment necessary to distill moonshine in your own backyard.
Opening the pressurized metal cask
This is where the magic happens. The pomace – grape skins and stems left over from the week’s wine-making – is heated indirectly until steam builds up. The steam passes through a tube, condensing as it cools. The resulting clear liquid becomes grappa.
A burst of steam hits the air when the cask is opened. Inside, the remnants of grape skins and stems.
The metal cask containing the pomace rests in another metal pot of boiling water. Indirect heating, called a “bagnomaria” prevents the grape skins from burning and affecting the flavor of the final product. Here, water is being added to the pot to make the next batch of grappa.
Out with the old
The old pomace is scooped out of the metal cask.
In with the new
Orange crates filled with new grape skins are stacked against the wall. When the cloth covering them is lifted, a massive cloud of fruit flies blackens the air. I cover my nose and mouth until they settle. The new grape skins are bright purple. They were pressed at the farm within the past week to make red wine.
The new grape skins are scooped into the metal cask.
Breaking the Rules
There are three rules that make grappa “grappa.” 1. The grappa must be made in Italy. 2. It must be produced from pomace (all grape skins and leaves). 3. All fermentation and distillation has to occur with the pomace alone, no added water. The farmer doesn’t add water to the mix, but he does add a few liters of old white wine, four years old to be exact. This is wine made at the farm that is no longer table-drinkable, but it’s still a far cry from vinegar. The wine will aid the distillation process by speeding up the steam. the farmer may be bending the rules, but then again, he’s already breaking the law…
One last look at the new pomace before it becomes grappa.
Light my Fire
The gas is lit beneath the metal casks. The water between the two containers begins to boil.
As the pressure and steam builds up in the metal cask, it is released through a thin metal tube, passing through a metal cooling barrel. The metal tube spirals down the sides of the container. As the steam passes through the cool water, it condenses into a clear, strong alcohol. The water in the cooling bath heats up quickly, so there’s a constant stream of cold water being pumped into the bottom, as the hot water exits the container from the top. This prevents overheating, explosions, etc.
Slowly, the newly formed grappa will drip from the metal tube into a waiting glass jug. It passes through one final filter on the way, emerging crystal clear.
The Final Product
Each batch of grappa takes four hours. In the first few hours, the grappa contains less alcohol. Later in the process, the liquid is much stronger. The farmer combines the two for a balanced grappa with medium alcohol content (“medium” moonshine is still 80-90 proof). Normally, the grappa is aged 2-3 months before consumption. The farmer pours an inch of the clear stuff into a plastic cup and hands it to me.
“How old is this grappa?” I ask him.
“Three, four….hours,” he says, “we made this before lunch.”
I tentatively take a sip. It’s surprisingly sweet and fruity – the sweetness will fade with aging – smooth to the taste, but I can still feel the liquid’s burn as it slides down my throat. I love a good grappa, and this farmer clearly knows what he’s doing. The grappa process is simple and natural – but kids, don’t try this at home; making moonshine can get messy.